Brandy and Soda

Oh look, it’s Death! Hello, Death!

This is THE UNHOLY NIGHT, a magnificently stagey old-dark-house comedy thriller from 1929, a year when they KNEW how to make films — by sitting a camera on some sticks and saying things in front of it. Lionel Barrymore directs, or supervises, or at any rate at least watches, probably, and the manly, hard-drinking ex-military hero is played by… Roland Young.

This casting is so deliriously awry it deforms what ought to be a dull, badly-made film into a triumph of creative mismanagement. Young, who doesn’t suit being actually young at all — he has no talent for youth — nails all the comedy, usurping the more dramatic aspects of the story, except where they involve weakness or sorrow, which he does well. The idea that he’s a tough guy who takes mass murder in his stride is a non-starter, but the scene where he thinks all his friends have been strangled (one of the film’s two sequences of camera movement strikingly glides across a roomful of garotted men) is disturbingly mournful, tearing a hole in the hi-jinks that leaves a cold wind riffling through the flapping script (story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare).

It is, as Micheal MacLiammoir said of Orson Welles’ audition for the Gate Theatre, “a remarkable performance, wrong from beginning to end.” Perhaps that’s unfair, but certainly if you ever wanted to see an actor conclusively disqualify himself from leading man roles, this would be a good place to look. Apart from that, he’s really good, credible and not stiff, which isn’t easy in this creaky thing. The script creaks as if typed on balsa, the unwieldy cast creaks as if whittled from teak (I never saw so many unemployable actors in uniforms just hanging around waiting to be murdered, or for this film to be over so they can go back on relief), the camera creaks – it’s forever attempting those adorable little false-start pans which don’t quite go anywhere, as if the operator started to think he was pointing in the wrong (a forgivable mistake in the circumstances), started looking for a better subject, then either gave up in despair or lapsed into an insulin coma.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Tod Browning’s similar THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which has as many different, revolutionary kinds of “acting” as it has chairs (that’s thirteen of them, in case you hadn’t guessed), but that’s the same as saying I enjoyed it extravagantly, without actually ascending all the way to a non-refundable state of satori. In addition to Young, we get the massive Edinburgh-born features of Ernest Torrence (Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Snr), who looks as if he could wedge a cricket ball between his nose and chin and spin it like a globe of the Earth, and there’s a quick turn by Boris Karloff as a suspicious Arab. Boris may only be around for about fifteen minutes, but he does his best to cram a full feature’s worth of acting into them… if this involves telegraphing three subtexts at a time, that’s a challenge Boris is not only willing but anxious to meet. You’ll never see such sheer quantity of acting. He makes up for the rest of the cast (and there’s a lot of them). The credits don’t mention Boris, but they do list the entire “doomed regiment.” The doomed regiment are entirely forgettable apart from the guy with the prosthetic scars, but Boris does his best to embody an entire doomed regiment with every swing of his cantilevered eyebrows.

Barrymore, who if nothing else must have had a fine eye for grotesquerie, also gives us Sojin, wearing his best store teeth, and playing a suspicious medium (these films are NOT complete without a trick séance), and THIS dazzling Adonis, whose chin could be used to dig roads. I could look at him for hours, whoever he is.

I’m convinced that if this guy could only dance, he’d have been a big star. “The Dancing Jawbone,” they’d have called him. And everybody would have clapped.

18 Responses to “Brandy and Soda”

  1. That penultimate still looks like a shot out of Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls — a film he never lived to see because he ran out of money and never paid the lab fees. Decades after his death someone did and released it. It’s quite nice.

  2. Glen or Glenda is the only Ed Wood I really like, but I REALLY like it. Ed invents the whole underground sensibility.

    In terms of directing chops, Ed probably was more on the ball than Lionel Barrymore…

  3. What Ed lacked wasn’t imagination — it was money.

  4. La Faustin Says:

    Another splendiferous casting of Roland Young: in the role of the man for whom Thelma Todd cheats on Cary Grant in THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932).

  5. Ah yes, that one IS LINED UP.

  6. Roland Young isn’t bad as a dry, suave, shifty character who seems to be baiting Basil Rathbone’s Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case. IIRC, the camera doesn’t move much there, either, though the angles are more interesting. Maybe Lionel Barrymore toyed with directing so he wouldn’t have to stand up so much.

    You’re right that even when he had his full complement of hair earlier in the ’20s on Broadway, Young didn’t look particularly young.

    The casting on This Is The Night is strange, it’s as though Young was where Cary should have been and Grant took Richard Arlen’s spot. But then, if the casting made more sense I might have found it less entertaining.

  7. Christopher Says:

    Watched The Thirteenth Guest(another of these early 30s mystery spookers) not too long ago,from the Vampira Show of the early 50s .Some of the product placement ad skits featured Ed Wood.

  8. Seaking of Death, 29 people are missing from that cruise ship that ran aground.

    And that cruise ship is a movie star.

  9. You had some wonderful lines in this one. I particularly liked “story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare.”

  10. The only good thing I can say about that disaster is that it’s closer to Andrea Doria in loss than Titanic. The news stories here (which can’t get enough of the footage) make it sound like a new Titanic (they’re practically drooling now that an American couple is among the missing). I find the reporting somewhat more offensive than TV news is already.

    It was very odd that the day this happened I was watching a ’30s comedy where a subplot had to do with a yacht which had futuristic (for the time) piloting equipment that of course went haywire, and the deckhands had no real sailing experience at all.

  11. Just back from meeting new Edinburgh Film Fest director Chris Fujiwara — we’re all wildly optimistic about this year’s fest. He didn’t catch my name at first, so part way through the conversation he said “You must know David Cairns.” “I am David Cairns!”

    It was weirdly flattering — I seemed to know about movies, so I must know David Cairns!

    And the good ship Capitalism continues to sink…

  12. Tell him I said “Hi!”

  13. story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare

    Probably with all the words he had left over after The Great Gabbo.

    Dorothy Sebastian is a marvel of inadequate facial expressions. I’m legitimately impressed that she cannot sell unconsciousness while languishing in the arms of a Boris Karloff who is clearly up to no good.

  14. “Probably with all the words he had left over after The Great Gabbo.”


    It’d be too much of a spoiler to reveal what’s going on with Boris and Dorothy in that image, but I will say this: he’s conscious enough for two.

  15. kevin mummery Says:

    It’s always fun to see Karloff in anything he made before “Frankenstein”…you can observe his proto-mannerisms before they became solidified into definable Karloffisms. In this particular film Karloff does more acting with the back of his head than pretty much every other actor does with their entire body, and I’m including their body of work up until this film.

  16. He may have decided it was too much, later. Notably, when he came to play an Arabic character again, in The Mummy, he toned the accent down considerably.

  17. kevin mummery Says:

    “I dislike to be touched…an Eastern prejudice.”

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